Stuart Palley California wildfire photos: Photographer captures breathtaking nighttime photos that balance beauty and devastation.

Bleakly Captivating Long-Exposure Photos of California’s Devastating Wildfires

Bleakly Captivating Long-Exposure Photos of California’s Devastating Wildfires

Behold
The Photo Blog
Sept. 4 2015 10:05 AM

Bleakly Captivating Photos of California’s Wildfires

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The Rough Fire burns in the Sequoia National Forest Aug. 13. The fire had burned over 10,000 acres and was expected to grow.

Stuart Palley

Wildfires have been ravaging California with terrifying frequency in the midst of its historically terrible drought. The sheer power of these blazes is fearsome, but it can also be bleakly captivating. For more than a year, Stuart Palley, who Eric Holthaus interviewed for Slate in July, has been documenting the fires by day for news organizations and capturing them by night in these mesmerizing photographs.

“I kind of grew up with these fleeting memories of fire around me,” Palley recalls. Palley was raised in Orange County, California, before he left the state for college and grad school. As a kid, Palley remembers occasionally having to leave the area due to fires and heading into the desert because the ash aggravated his asthma. When he returned to his home state and took an apprenticeship with the Orange County Register, Palley found himself around fires once again.

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The Rocky Fire burns overnight near the town of Clear Lake, California, in Lake County, California. Hot and dry weather caused the fire to burn actively at night, threatening homes and downing power lines. At least three homes were destroyed.

Stuart Palley

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The Rocky Fire burns near Clear Lake, California, in Lake County, California.

Stuart Palley

“I got sent to a fire by the newspaper out in northern San Diego County,” Palley said. “I got there, and almost within five or 10 minutes of arriving, I’m watching a probably million-dollar home burn to the ground.”

From then on, Palley set out to document wildfires in a new way: His long exposure photos aim to capture not only the powerful destruction these disasters can cause, but also the dark beauty of the process itself. He shoots most of his photos at night, away from urban centers, where there is little to no light pollution and the sky is filled with stars. His exposure is set anywhere from one second to a minute or two, allowing the pictures to display more than what our eyes can take in at one time.

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The Rough Fire burns in the Sequoia National Forest, Aug. 13. The fire had burned over 10,000 acres and was expected to grow.

Stuart Palley

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The Rough Fire burns in Fresno County/the Sequoia National Forest, Aug. 19. The fire burned over 30,000 acres, and was 3 percent contained, forcing the mandatory evacuation of the Hume Lake area.

Stuart Palley

“I’m trying to show the magnitude of it, because the fires are burning many more acres than before,” Palley said. He tries to capture the fires’ scale in his photographs by shooting large areas like housing developments and mountains. This way, he hopes, he can show just how much area these wildfires can consume—and raise public interest.

“I take this very seriously. Sometimes I risk my life to go shoot these fires,” Palley said. He added later that although he’s well-versed in fire behavior, has all the appropriate safety gear, and shoots at night when fires are a bit more moderate, he’s always aware of the risks.

“A fire can move faster than you can run. … Sometimes you can’t even outrun it in your car. You have to be very, very careful. ... You have to weigh the situation against the shot you’re trying to get.”

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The Lake Fire burns in the San Bernardino National Forest June 18. By evening the fire burned over 10,000 acres and was 5 percent contained.

Stuart Palley

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The Lake Fire burns in the San Bernardino National Forest June 19. By evening the fire burned over 13,000 acres and was 10 percent contained.

Stuart Palley

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The Lake Fire burns in San Bernardino County. The fire was over 20,000 acres and 27 percent contained, down from 38 percent containment and smaller acreage the day before. Rim Rock was under a mandatory evacuation and Pioneertown was under a voluntary evacuation

Stuart Palley

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The Shirley Fire burns at night off of Old State Road near Lake Isabella, California. An Air Attack plane flies overhead in a circular pattern, creating a perfect circle.

Stuart Palley

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The El Portal Fire burns on a hillside in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, July 27, 2014. The community of El Portal was under a mandatory evacuation. By two days later the blaze had burned nearly 3,000 acres. The El Portal Fire was the third significant blaze to occur in the park within the past few months.

Stuart Palley

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Firefighter Dennis Rein at the French Fire on Aug. 1, 2014. Rein served with the Incident Management Team on the French Fire in the Sierra National Forest.

Stuart Palley

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The Meadow Fire burns at dawn near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park early Sept. 8, 2014. The Meadow Fire was one of four large fires that burned in and around Yosemite National Park during summer 2014.

Stuart Palley

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The King Fire burns through the El Dorado National Forest on Sept. 20, 2014. The fire burned 50,000 acres of forest overnight and killed most vegetation in its path. The pyrocumulus could be seen from Sacramento and the California Central Valley.

Stuart Palley